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Book Review: “How to Walk Away,” A Kind of Cartography

How To Walk Away

by Lisa Birman

Spuyten Duyvil, 2015

ISBN 9781941550021


How to Walk Away: A Kind of Cartography

If asked to make a map, would you write a novel? Lisa Birman would and did in How to Walk Away, her first novel, published by Spuyten Duyvil press, February 2015. As a map, this novel is folded in thirds and well worn at the creases—worried over with care. It’s crowded with omission and perspective carrying the reader along to discovery. To finding new pleasure in rare dialogue and the even rarer complete sentence while traversing her anti-hero’s journey.

In her poetry Birman uses space and color to expand the dimensions of the page, as in her chapbook For That Return Passage – A Valentine for the United States of America. She brings similar dimensions to her novel—detours into the synaptical maze of Otis, an OCD war veteran returned home and mapping the familiar with the number five.

How to Walk AwayUnlike Campbell’s heroic journey, How to Walk Away starts at the return. Enveloped and interspersed with letter narration, the short and shorter sections of the book craft a psychological domestic journey in three acts from Otis’ isolation to a delayed reunion with his wife, Cat. Birman’s careful structure offers road signs for the reader traveling the confusion of the narrator’s consuming obsessions.

The first third of the book revels in the romantic blank of unexplored territory that the reader of strong literature relishes. What reader is not navigator of the author’s course? There is always the author’s presence by your side: “’Here.’ A question. ‘Here.’ A resolution. ‘Here.’ A reassurance. A comment on geography. On bodies. On bringing a person to my side.” (106)

We feel the accuracy of the breaches between the internal and external worlds as Otis travels outside himself in the middle of the book. “We do not know our borders. Most people cannot mark their height on a wall. . . . We do not know our reach. The breadth of our bodies.” (148) Manifesting mental injuries physically, Otis’ person becomes not unlike the shape of the novel itself—three thoughtful sections.

Cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively. How To Walk Away is a space effectively communicating two models of reality merging to make a new topography.

Lisa Birman proves a deft cartographer as she delineates a shift between the boundaries of Cat and Otis, the continents of the novel. “You can’t always see your patterns. Standing inside them. Looking out. I know there was a space between the noticing and the saying.” (236) When Otis steps outside himself and finds uncharted territory in simple things, a coat, say, or a closet in his home–the coat and the closet become the X marking the spot Cat and Otis intersect.

“I don’t know that there is a perfect map. There’s a mapmaker. There’s always a kick back.” (10) Not a perfect map, How To Walk Away is a book to explore. Reading it, “you’ll know something new. Most times you won’t notice. The movement is too swift. You’re just there. Knowing. Or on the road to knowing.” (254) If asked to make a map, would you ask, a map of what? Or would you know that all of us are only interested in navigating each other?

Review by Chelsea Werner-Jatzke

© 2015, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Money Money Money Water Water Water

Money Money Money Water Water Water

Written by Jane Mead

Alice James Books, 2014

ISBN 9781938584046

Money Money Money Water Water Water Jane Mead’s assured hand has snipped exquisite holes in her poems, allowing the unsaid to rise, waver and haunt every line. In her fourth collection, the poet has removed every non-essential word, a mastery of distillation, to create a work of pure potency.

In tercets, mostly (three line stanzas), roaming through lean sections of natural shocks, Mead contemplates environmental and existential immensities in a liminal subtext and never puts a foot wrong. On the left, single tercets with monostich gesture to the right hand poems in language as urgent, wistful and primary as   How much how much where going     and you know exactly what she means.

What can’t be said speaks wholly through absence; connections are deepened through asyndeton (no connectors). Gone, most of a sentence; the word going is allowed to remain, to reappear like the repetitions of the title, or ghosts. Going, going, gone.

Questions don’t need question marks, nether states like “the can-be / and the want” “primitive stalks of might-be / and aftermath” tell all. Known by the spirits of deer, and the dead. Ag reports, pesticides. The effect is transfiguring in a transfigured terroir. Something changes into something else in the space between the going and the aftermath, and in us, as Mead asks her last question.

How much can you subtract now 

How much and still get by

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Glossolalia

Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories

Written by David Jauss

Press 53, 2013

ISBN 9781935708841

With prose that is precise and devastating, David Jauss presents seventeen new and selected stories about the resilience of people as they are dragged through the rough of isolation: isolation from God; isolation from love; from community. And in that isolation is discovery. Jauss builds and cultivates these immensely complex characters while never abandoning them completely. It seems to me that Glossolalia asks the question: what keeps these characters moving after taking nearly everything away?

Glossolalia_CoverIn the last twelve months, I have not read many new short story collections. Novels seem to have taken over my bookshelf, and so consequently, I really forgot why I fell in love with the short form those years ago. It was the surprises, the gut-punch that you never saw coming and left you forgetting how to breathe, only to start the next gut-punch pages later. Stories that ended far sooner than you wish they had, and Glossolalia lands every blow with stories that challenge the form, stretch the narrative bounds, while also committing to honest and more traditional storytelling.

David Jauss has no limitations. “Apotheosis” is a story written in letter-form, by Friar Miguel Sabogal during the Spanish Inquisition, pleading his innocence on the charge of being a heretic. In the letter, the friar recounts his story about torture and the fragility of the spirit as it is reduced to its fewest possible components. “The Bigs” is a story about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic playing for a Double A team. The story is written in first person and in a dialect that lends such authenticity to the narrative voice that the reader can nearly hear it. The title story, “Glossolalia,” is a much more straightforward narrative that shows what happens when a boy’s father has a complete mental breakdown. Jauss’ great attention to nuance is what really sells these stories: the nuance of voice, the nuance of character. Young fiction writers should read this collection and learn from one of the truly great masters of the form, and the casual reader should simply allow these stories to blow them away.

There seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the collection of bad fathers, broken fathers. Stories about fatherly faith gained and lost and then found again. What Jauss achieves with this collection is a brutal realism, the hard callous that insulates us within our darkest dreams and our deepest regrets. But ultimately these stories remind the reader of the amazing resilience of people, of how “a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.”

Review by Adam Padgett

© 2014, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Home Burial

Home Burial

Written by Michael McGriff

Copper Canyon Press, 2012

ISBN 9781556593840

Home Burial coverHome Burial (Copper Canyon Press,  2012) exposes the Pacific Northwest poet Michael McGriff knows inside out with a stunning forensic lyricism. His knowledge of the backwoods, the quarries, the bay “shaped like a rabbit / hanging limp / from the jaws of the landscape” is downright chthonic, haunted by spirits of place, the departed, and the old junkers they left behind. His poems track movement shapeshifting through his rural routes/roots, personifying Midwinter as a woman who “lets the darkness / sit down beside her” here, pointing to glimpses of reeds–or is it human hair– waving from the bottom of the pond in another abandoned wreck there. His unflinching reports are detailed with a poetic grace that does not betray the bleak realities of life, as, say, a four-legged predator, an obese dead man removed by a crane through a shattered chimney,  his grandfather’s will found on the back of an invoice in the shed, a woman about to die on the job at the mill.

McGriff presents the hardscrabble vignettes in forms as natural as weather, in language at once harsh and beautiful, shitkicking and prayerful, but never off pitch. This, his second full-length collection, is a Lannan Literary Selection. In its thirty-one poems, the poet’s response to the natural world and the ultimate fragility of all its inhabitants hardened by necessity ties these cautionary tales, remembrances and elegies together like #50 Heavy Cougar Genuine Leather Logger Laces. Imagining McGriff creating his poetry in the tough guy settings of his titles: the break room, the Oyster Bar, or sitting – like Midwinter – at the kitchen table, is grainy, cinematic. Anyone who knows this heartbreaking country knows Home Burial  nails it; anyone unfamiliar is shown its beating heart, the lay of the land, and what lies beneath.

Review by Susan Lynch

© 2013, All Rights Reserved